What is Culture

Culture refers to the set of material and spiritual goods of a social group transmitted from generation to generation in order to guide individual and collective practices. It includes language, processes, ways of life, customs, traditions, habits, values, patterns, tools and knowledge.

The function of culture is to guarantee the survival and facilitate the adaptation of the subjects in the environment.

Each culture embodies a worldview in response to the reality that the social group lives. Therefore, there is no social group that lacks culture or is “uneducated.” What does exist are different cultures and, within these, different cultural groups, even with respect to the dominant culture.

The term culture is also used in restricted senses, either to refer to the values ​​and habits that govern specific groups, or to refer to specialized areas of knowledge or activity. In both cases, the word culture is always accompanied by a qualifying adjective.

For example:

  • political culture: “Our country suffers from a messianic political culture.”
  • organizational culture: “Our organizational culture is based on helping people.”
  • physical Culture: “The school must offer physical culture to the children”.

Origin of the term culture

The concept of culture has varied throughout history. In its Etymological originThe word culture comes from the Latin cultus which means “cultivation” or “cultivated”. This term is the past participle of the word colere which means ‘cultivate’.

In the Middle Ages, culture designated a cultivated land. In the Renaissance the idea of ​​the “cultivated” man appeared, that is, someone educated in literature and fine arts.

From the eighteenth century, the term culture began to be systematically used to refer to enlightened knowledge. In the 19th century, culture also encompassed good manners and customs.

With the development of the social sciences in the 20th century, the meaning of culture has been expanding, until it found what we attribute to it today.

culture elements


Every culture is made up of a set of basic elements. The most important are the following:

  • Cognitive elements: It refers to the accumulated knowledge within a given culture for survival against nature and adaptation within the social group.
  • Beliefs: encompasses the set of ideas that the cultural group establishes about what is real either fake. It is linked to the value system.
  • Values: These are the criteria that serve as behavior evaluation models, since they guide what are considered acceptable or unacceptable principles and attitudes to guarantee the continuity of the group.
  • Rules: they are specific codes of action that regulate the relationship between individuals based on shared values. Includes the system sanctions. There are two types of standards:
    • prescriptive rules: indicate the duties and obligations.
    • proscriptive rules: point out what should not be done.
  • System of signs and symbols: they are all the arbitrary and conventionalized communicative resources used by the social group to transmit messages. We can mention the languagethe writingthe graphic signs and the symbols.
  • Non-normative forms of conduct: are those behavioral traits that differentiate one social group from another, even within a shared culture. is what is called idiosyncrasy.
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Other approaches to cultural phenomena establish the following as elements of culture:

  • immaterial or spiritual culture, corresponds to the culture that is transmitted by oral tradition. For example:
    • belief system;
    • values;
    • language;
    • music;
    • laws etc
  • material culture, is the one that is represented in a material way, such as technology, cultural consumer goods and tangible heritage. For example:
    • architecture;
    • plastic arts;
    • outfit;
    • kitchen;
    • tools;
    • weapons etc

Characteristics of the culture

All cultures are characterized by sharing a series of elements, among which we can point out the following:

  • encompass the totality of human practices;
  • arise in opposition to nature (instinct vs. knowledge);
  • represent a vision of the world;
  • they express themselves symbolically;
  • provide social order;
  • their survival depends on communication;
  • consolidate traditions;
  • are dynamicthat is, they are transformed;
  • are more or less open, that is, they are susceptible to the influence of other cultures. Therefore, they are subject to processes of:
    • enculturation;
    • transculturation;
    • acculturation;
    • inculturation.

types of culture

Culture can be classified according to different criteria. This will depend on the objective of the study and the theoretical-ideological approach. Cultures are normally classified according to topical, that is, matters of collective interest. The most frequent ways of classifying culture are the following:

According to the historical sense


Peter Bruegel: dutch proverbs. 1550. Oil on wood. 1.17 x 1.63 cm. Berlin State Museums.

It refers to the cultures framed within a delimited period of time. Cultural transformation does not imply an absolute dissolution of culture but its adaptation to historical changes.

For example:

  • renaissance culture;
  • baroque culture;
  • medieval culture.

In the anthropological sense


The Acropolis of Athens, Greece.

It refers to the culture that identifies a people in a comprehensive way.

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For example:

  • Egyptian culture;
  • Inca Culture;
  • Greek culture;
  • Western culture;
  • eastern culture etc.

According to the religious paradigm


In the anthropology of religions, cultures are classified according to the type of religious paradigm they develop. Within these categories are those of monotheistic cultures and polytheistic cultures.

For example:

monotheistic cultures:

  • Jewish culture;
  • Christian culture;
  • Muslim Culture.

polytheistic cultures:

  • Hindu culture;
  • ancient Greco-Roman culture.

According to knowledge of writing


Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.

Another way to classify cultures is according to their knowledge of writing. terms are used oral cultures either preliterate cultures to refer to cultures that do not have writing systems. Those that possess or have possessed writing systems are called written cultures.

For example:

illiterate cultures:

  • yanomani indigenous culture (Venezuela)

written cultures:

  • Egyptian culture (hieroglyphic writing);
  • Mesopotamian culture (cuneiform writing).

According to the mode of production


Rice cultivation fields in China.

Cultures are transformed along with their modes of production or vice versa. Among them we can mention the following types:

  • nomadic cultures: those that depend on hunting and gathering, for which they migrate frequently.
    • Example: Chichimeca culture in Mexico.
  • Agricultural cultures: those that become sedentary thanks to the development of agricultural and livestock technology.
    • Example: Chinese culture.
  • Urban culture: those established in urban centers governed by commercial activity.
    • Example: the Renaissance culture or the culture of today’s cities.
  • Industrial Cultures: those that apply mass-scale industrial modes of production.
    • Example: modern western society.

According to the socio-economic order (or hegemony)


In the study of culture within the same society, the classification of culture according to social class, socio-economic order or hegemony has prevailed, due to the impact that the material order has on cultural processes.

At first there was talk of high culture Y low culture. High culture was represented by the enlightened elite of society, which was the one that held power. The low culture was attributed to the illiterate popular sectors, which were the most vulnerable sectors. this classification, already in disuseresponded to a level assessment based on the hegemony of the dominant group.

With the rise of nationalism, the popular sectors were considered representatives of the national identity. Thus, the expression began to be used more frequently popular culture to the detriment of low culture. High culture was renamed elitist Culture, elite culture, cultured culture, official culture either academic culture.

For example:

  • popular culture: folk traditions such as the carnival.
  • elite culture:
    • the fine arts (“cultured”);
    • the official religion or ideology of a State (official or officializing);
    • medicine as an area of ​​knowledge (academic);

According to diffusion modes


With the entry of the mass media, cultural processes were altered. New cultures have emerged from there.

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By mass culture either mass culture the culture that emerges from the information disclosed by the mass media is known, that is, the consumer culture. It affects both elite culture and popular culture.

For example:

  • The global phenomenon of The Beatles and other pop idols;
  • The universal consumption of certain products and the imagery associated with them (for example, soft drinks).

The cyberculture it is another of the cultures defined according to their means of communication. Cyberculture is understood as that which is formed through the interaction of subjects through social networks and virtual reality.

For example:

  • Second Lifevirtual community.
  • Culture Facebook and other social networks.

According to power struggles within a society


The differences between the sectors of a society generate movements of resistance and/or innovation opposed to the hegemonic order. Many times they have to do with generational differences that are accentuated in light of technical and scientific advances. Within this category we recognize the concepts of subculture Y counterculture.

For example:


  • rockers;
  • goths.


  • Hippie movement;
  • feminism.

See also:

  • types of culture
  • Subculture
  • Counterculture

philosophy of culture

The philosophy of culture is a branch within the philosophical discipline whose purpose is to understand the concept of culture and its impact on the subject. In an essay entitled “Idea and history of the philosophy of culture” published in the book philosophy of culture (VV.AA., 1998), the researcher David Sobrevilla defines the philosophy of culture as:

…the philosophical reflection on the elements and dynamics of cultural phenomena, the foundation of the concepts extracted from them and the evaluation and criticism of said phenomena from a philosophical perspective.

According to the researcher, the difference between the approach that philosophy makes on culture compared to other disciplines (anthropology or psychology, for example), is that philosophy focuses on the study of the conceptual. Thus, the philosophy of culture does not address the empirical analysis of cultural phenomena as facts. On the contrary, it tries to understand them from a philosophical point of view.

Cultural context

Cultural context is known as those cultural variables that allow the understanding of a certain phenomenon under study. That is, they are those cultural elements that have an influence on a fact, character or product of history, and that therefore must be considered in order to make a fair interpretation of the matter to be studied. For example: value system, customs, dominant spirituality, etc. Understanding the cultural context of an issue allows minimizing the risk of incurring value judgments.

See also: Civilization and Art.